Conventional wisdom states that console peasants can’t compete with the PC master race, at least when it comes to first person shooters. A controller and its joysticks just can't compare to the freedom of a mouse and keyboard.
Because there's actually a real difference in technology between the two platforms, games rarely allow players from the two factions face each other in an actual server. Console gamers play on console servers, and PC players play on PC servers.
It might be the biggest debate in gaming. Last weekend, a $1,000 Titanfall CTF tournament tried to answer the debate in a meaningful way: on the battlefield.
Titanfall is an interesting title to attempt such a challenge. It’s a run-and-gun game with a quick time-to-kill like Call of Duty, but it also features parkour-style movement, allowing players to wall jump and scale buildings in a free running world. It also features titans, giant mechs that players can release after a timer that can be reduced by killing enemy players.
In Titanfall esports, teams of five or six players play capture the flag, battle use quick movement to run flags while trying to control the map through positioning and proper use of titans.
Exertus Zen is the best Titanfall team in the Xbox world. They’ve won dozens of tournaments on Major League Gaming’s Gamebattles, a community with hundreds of teams. So when they saw the smaller PC Titanfall community, with only two dozen teams on a good day, was hosting a CTF tournament, they figured it’d be like stealing candy from a baby. The team bought PC versions of the game, plugged their Xbox controllers in, and entered the tournament.
And that’s when the controversy began.
The problem? Like many console games, Titanfall implements something called "aim assist" to smooth out the experience for controller-wielding warriors. Aim assist essentially increases the margin of error in aiming: if you get the crosshair close to an enemy, it will seem to “stick” to them, as many players put it, making it easier to keep your crosshair aimed properly. It will even move your crosshair for you in some cases, like if a player quickly enter the screen near where you’re aiming. But is that an unfair advantage for console players, or a necessary band-aid to mitigate a handicap inherent with their hardware of choice?
While many console players are defensive about the concept, wary that admitting its need somehow devalues their own skill, some are more pragmatic.
“I think a controller with disabled aim assist would be so inaccurate you couldn’t get a kill,” Anthony “Gamesager” Jarvis, a player on Exertus, told the Daily Dot. He points to the example of trying to team kill a teammate in the console shooter Halo, a notoriously difficult feat compared to blasting an enemy, since there's no aim assist on friendly targets.
For many PC players, playing against talented controller users backed by aim assist sometimes feels like struggling against a player with an aimbot, a cheat in PC games that uses the computer to aim for the player.
“I underestimated that shit,” Justin White, a player on the team Free Refills, said about aim assist. White's team faced off against Exertus in the tournament.
But is White just underestimating console players, and specifically the best? Aim assist can easily obscure a player’s skill.
Exertus player Anthony “Gamesager” Jarvis explained: “If [you] watched any average or even close to the top [console] player, they would still be worse than the keyboard and mouse user. We have just been using controllers for over ten years of our lives and happen to be really good with them.”
A controller is objectively worse than a mouse at moving a pointer around a screen. The joysticks on your typical Xbox handheld lack the precision and variability of a mouse, which is only limited by how fast its user can move their hand. A joystick won’t move a crosshair any faster than its highest setting allows. That’s bad news when trying to execute even simple maneuvers, like turning 180 degrees to face behind you.
Aim assist's goal is to even the playing field. While that may serve a noble purpose in a public server, in competitive play it muddles what should be an equal competition.
It’s a sticky issue, especially considering that some top console players don’t even think it exists, despite the game’s developer, Respawn, confirming its presence. For a PC player, it’s mind boggling to think that’s possible. But for someone using a controller, aim assist often feels like a tacit confirmation of what you’re attempting to do when you move your joystick. Even if your actual movements wouldn’t get it done in game.
This clip shows aim assist in action. A player strafes back and forth with his crosshair on a grunt, hand off his joystick, and the crosshair seems to stick to the enemy. Below, you can watch how aim assist works in Battlefield 3, another popular console shooter:
“PC players have always told me that even with aim assist, the keyboard and mouse is still more accurate, and that using the controller over it is handicapping yourself,” Jarvis said. “And the average keyboard and mouse user will always be more accurate than the average controller user.”
Of course, aim isn’t the only thing separating PC and console warriors. Titanfall is a game about movement, with the parkour-style ability to run on walls, scale buildings, and traverse the map in a free fashion. Much of the movement used by skilled mouse and keyboard players is impossible with a controller
So while it’s possible that aim assist gives console players an advantage, at least in some types of situations, like long-distance gun fights, there are still a number of hurdles for them to overcome.
That quickly became apparent in the tournament, with map selection playing an important role; tight landscapes with lots of buildings that provided parkour opportunities favored the fast moving PC players. Exertus won two matches to reach the semifinals and a meeting with the top seed, Free Refills, a team of Team Fortress 2 pro gamers.
The best-of-three series would end in a tie amid controversy. Exertus took the first map, Smuggler’s Cove, a large open battlefield with lots of sightlines that the console team abused to maintain map control.
On Angel City, Free Refills took a quick lead with a fast flag route before titans became available. Exertus fought back to take a lead using superior positioning and titan play. But Free Refills would pull off a ridiculous last minute flag run to tie the map.
That left Colony, a city landscape filled with buildings perfect for quick movement and parkour. The PC team ended up winning 2-0, but the first capture was scored at the start of the match, when one of the console players had disconnected due to lag. After the second capture, Exertus left the server and forfeited the match. They were apparently angry that Free Refills wouldn’t restart the game due to their player disconnecting for a few minutes, despite a rule indicating that’s how the situation should be handled.
So in the end, the debate was never really settled: Both sides were left with a bad taste in their mouths. But the match did show a number of interesting things about the differing styles bred from the two communities.
“[Exertus] just understand the game way better than everyone,” said Brandon “Seagull” Larned, a player on Free Refills. “They play titans one-hundred-percent and play off that completely and put a LOT of time into it.
“They are the better team in my opinion, but they should be crushing us.”
Exertus did play the “titan game” better than any other squad at the event. Instead of rushing early for a flag capture, for example, they’d set up in perfect positions on the map to take kills while staying alive, gaining an advantage in the number of titans they can call down. Combine that with knowledge of the right situations to do so, and a knack for using the titans to control the flow of the game, and you’ve got a winner.
“On PC they mostly rush the flag over and over as fast as possible,” Jarvis said. “On Xbox, for the most part, we try to set up on the map and keep them in their spawn, so that we get titans before the other team, and then rush the flag.”
Exertus also prefered to take advantage of long sight lines, setting up around the rooftops on the map and creating lines of intersecting fire. PC teams prefer a more free-form style, in part perhaps due to their increased capacity for fast movement. Both styles seemed to have their advantages and disadvantages, according to Larned.
Once Exertus got set up, it was nearly impossible to break them down.
“It's a lame way to play and it works,” Larned said. The console players had better long range aim, he said, admitting that wasn't necessarily because of aim assist. A controller might actually have an advantage at making small adjustments against a distant target compared to a mouse, especially as the mouse sensitivities likely required to execute the quick movement in Titanfall, even if it doesn’t stack up at close or mid range.
But while the console players were able to take control of the map, they were not adept at actually taking advantage of their setup—it took them much more effort to actually secure a capture than a PC team in a similar position.
“I don’t think it's possible for a controller to pull off the hard parkour routes that most PC players are using,” Larned said. A specific example is a seven-second flag run on Colony the team almost pulled off in the third map against Exertus.
“For the most part, almost all of the Xbox players cannot move as well as the mouse and keyboard,” he said.
While he believes that all the same flag routes are physically possible with a controller, the amount of practice required to do them consistently would be prohibitive.
That also left Exertus vulnerable to fast captures. In the second map, for example, Free Refills had a fast flag route that likely hadn’t been seen before by the console team. Plus they pulled it off before titans were on the map, one of Exertus’ strengths.
“The playstyle [PC teams] use is definitely good,” Jarvis said. “Its just another take at it though. I feel like the best thing to do is take ideas from both playstyles.”
Some other key differences include titan loadouts. Most PC team favor the smaller and quicker Stryder type titans, loading them with the high damage-per-second 40mm cannon, a weapon that console players find difficult to use. The console players favor the large titans armed with the Arc Cannon, a weapon that charges up and does area of effect damage.
“[PC players] definitely need to bring the arc cannon with capacitor into their playstyles,” Jarvis said. “They underestimate it because its DPS is low.”
Larned agreed with Jarvis, after seeing the guns destructive effects in battle. It’s powerful in hit-and-run situations, or where your team can frontload titan damage by firing from multiple giants.
Part of the difference in styles could be chalked up to the size of the communities. While much of the Exertus play style necessarily has to do with the limitations of their input device, it’s also an effective style bred from winning dozens of tournaments against hundreds of teams. The smaller PC Titanfall scene hasn’t developed on the same level, with most teams competing for fun at an amateur level.
So in the end, the debate was left unsettled. But then, considering how different the current crop of controllers and mice play out, it’s nearly impossible to create a fair competition between the two. That’s one reason why few games simply don’t. While it’s obviously technologically possible to place console and PC players into the same game server, most developers won’t implement that functionality due to these inherent issues.
Jarvis hopes that doesn’t put an end to cross-platform competition.
“I would love to play in another PC tournament,” he said. “But I doubt they will allow controllers again. I still think the PC players had better aim than me, the reason we did well is because we had better teamwork and titan control.”
Future devices, like the fabled Steam controller, may one day open up the possibility of a completely fair playing field. Devices like the XIM already exist to bring keyboard and mouse input to console games, but it hasn’t been explored in console competition, and many console players feel like it’s close to cheating.
Until we get more advances in controller technology, console players and PC gamers are best left to slinging insults on internet forums than fighting in the servers.
Image via Respawn Entertainment